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Special competition at Performing Arts Center

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

Four contestants will walk away with a crown during a competition designed to raise awareness about special-needs residents.

The eighth annual Mr. and Miss Special Henry County Pageant, a fund-raising event, is sponsored by People First of Henry County. It is scheduled for Saturday, at 4 p.m., and will be held at the Henry County Performing Arts Center in McDonough.

"We have 23 contestants this year," said Connie Dodgen, a director of People First of Henry County. "Our goal is to actually raise the self-esteem of the contestants, to promote fairness and equality for people with disabilities, and make sure they're included in the community. We show their abilities, rather than their disabilities."

Tickets are $5, she said, and proceeds will go towards organizing social activities for the special-needs community.

The emcee for this year's pageant will be Jeff Cooper, vice president of operations for Henry Medical Center.

The contest improves the participants' self-image, said Cooper.

"I think it gives them a great boost to their self-esteem," he said. "Everyone in the audience is very supportive of all of the contestants, and the contestants get a lot of positive feedback."

Cooper said the first year he was involved with the pageant, he was asked to be a judge. He eventually began emceeing with a former Miss. Special Henry, Lyndsey Mills. "This will be my fourth year as emcee," he added.

The pageant is divided into two categories, said Dodgen. The Mr. and Miss Teen Special Henry County is for ages 13-19. The adult category is for ages 20 and up.

The contestants are judged on stage presence, appearance, and interview skills, she said.

The pageant, Dodgen said, began several years ago. "In 2002, Lyndsey Mills was crowned Miss Henry County 2003, and she had a sister with Down's Syndrome," said Dodgen. "I had always gone to the pageant, and Lyndsey's platform was to promote fairness and equality for people with disabilities, because of her sister."

After the 2002 pageant, Connie Dodgen approached Mills with the idea of organizing a special-needs pageant. After some collaboration, she said, the first Mr. and Miss Special Henry County Pageant was held later that year.

Melissa Dodgen, Connie Dodgen's daughter, was the first Miss Special Henry County winner, and was crowned for 2003.

"I was so excited, I actually cried when I won," said Melissa Dodgen. "It made me feel so good."

Winners in the adult category, who give up their crown the following year, become People First of Henry County board members, she said.